‘I am of both countries, and I feel sanctuary in neither’

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"In Metro Manila, a skinny boy, younger than my students, stomach-down in the street in a green basketball jersey, the hole in his head spilling scarlet, his grandmother wailing nearby," writes Filipino-American author Laurel Fantauzzo in this piece, where she shares her impressions of recent events in the Philippines and United States. "In the U.S., I watch a self-avowed sexual predator rise in potential power ... I watch acts of racism, and shows of arms, as endemic to America as the hope of its egalitarian dream."

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — When I entered the United States in April at Los Angeles, my home airport, the Customs and Border Patrol officer looked at me and hesitated. He thumbed past the many “Philippines” stamps in my U.S. passport pages. He asked me the last time I had been to the United States. I said it had been two years. I did not say I had made my life abroad in the Philippines, and more recently Singapore, or that I had mostly preferred to avoid a life in the United States for now.

The officer asked me to say my Social Security number from memory; I said the digits aloud. He asked me for more identification. I gave him my employee ID, the international pass issued to me by Singapore, an old college ID, and a gym pass. Still, it wasn’t enough.

“There’s something wrong with your ears in your passport photo,” he said. “They don’t match your ears in real life.” His accusation was implicit: the person in your passport isn’t you.

I grew more and more silent, observing the moment, feeling every centimeter of my ears. I knew I had done nothing wrong, and I knew who I was. I also knew my knowledge would do nothing to protect me from whatever consequence he wished to visit upon me, with his mistaken conviction. I slowly recognized a kind of balance here: the country I increasingly could not recognize could not, for the moment, recognize me.

The officer rose from his seat and brought my five IDs over to another officer. This second man glanced at me, and back at my IDs. I overheard his bored murmur to the skeptical officer. “It’s obviously her.” And so the man returned to his seat, shuffled my IDs in his hand, passed them to me, and let me through. I entered the rest of the United States silent.

2nd-round-us-presidential-debate_CNNPH.png Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump greet each other, without a handshake, at the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.  

I told my father about the moment later that day, when he brought me In ‘n’ Out burgers for lunch at a small park. I told him about the four other IDs, the questions.

“I would have gone berserk,” my dad said. My white father has never questioned his right to belong in America, and still signs his envelopes CDR, for his status as a retired Naval Commander.

“Well, that’s what happens when you’re not-quite-white at the border nowadays,” I said.

My father laughed a particular laugh: short, quiet, soon fading, suffused with sadness. I had heard it before. It was the laugh of someone who would always be set apart from his children; who had contributed to their existence but could not truly share the dangers they faced. My youngest brother and my mother have also left the United States, for Canada. Decades ago, our father could not have anticipated his own family members migrating from the country he so passionately served. He attends the Conservative Political Action Committee in Washington, DC, and still keeps conservative radio hosts on in his car and at home, while he runs small errands around the house he occupies alone. I have avoided calling him lately. I cannot summon the courage to discuss who he will be voting for, prior to the U.S. election, though the answer would likely leave me unsurprised.

A silence has taken hold of me lately, directed not only at my father. My voice feels stilled, my words halting. I have been struggling to name where the silence comes from. I am a teacher of writing at an international college. I advise students on how to say and find what they wish to say and find. But in my solitude, I find myself silent, feeling a familiar paralysis. Mine is not as simple as writer’s block, a phenomena I don’t believe really exists. My hesitance to speak is an old habit rooted in my personal history, reaching up from my cells to seize my present-day voice.

SOTU_CNNPH.png President Barack Obama delivers his last State of the Union address.  

When I was a child in a wealthy Los Angeles suburb, living with my mother and father, I would hide in my room, silent then too. I was lucky to have a room, and a small Apple computer whose blinking cursor would numb me from my fear. At the time, my habit of hiding led my father to snarl that I was Little Miss Hide-in-Her-Room. My mother would demand I turn out my light and stop reading, or she would enter and slap the keyboard, or me. While their violence, and the threats of their violence, sometimes turned upon their children, they mostly aimed at each other. I knew one parent — my Filipina mother — to be more physically vulnerable than the other, my ex-military American father. My father broke windows and dishes and called my mother into the garage, out of my sight. Local police officers visited our house. At the time, I would rarely speak of these fights, though they stayed jagged inside me long after they had ended. On bad days these moments stay jagged in me still, years after my departure from my parents’ California home. Violence has a way of outstaying its initial entry, and I have only ever known to face it with silence.

My friends in the Philippines live and work with great energy, as they always do, but they have new fears. They are afraid of the sound of motorcycles, murderers’ most frequently chosen conveyances. They are afraid of police officers’ shows of new power, of officers’ bribes and fatal tempers.

For many months I have felt an intensifying return of that old fear, directed, this time, at the two countries that made me: the Philippines and the United States. One, my mother’s birth country, is more vulnerable, more ravaged by daily, state-sanctioned, physical violence than the other. My white father’s country, the United States, bears more power and stability. But its police are militarized, its potential leader engaged in the rhetoric of racist dictatorship and violent threats, and a huge swath of its citizens are increasingly armed, uncertain, enraged, and afraid.

Lately, I no longer hide in a single room. I have found physical safety and a good job as a teacher in Singapore, an externally calm, anti-drug city-state for whom my most intense feeling is one of neutrality. My computer, still an Apple, is no longer a numbing agent, but the deliverer of new daily, visual violences. In between teaching, I absorb scenes for which words feel futile.

In Metro Manila, a skinny boy, younger than my students, stomach-down in the street in a green basketball jersey, the hole in his head spilling scarlet, his grandmother wailing nearby. In the mall where I used to get my haircuts, a private company uses police markers and cardboard signs —  physical symbols of daily crime scenes — to comically advertise hand sanitizers. Near the U.S. Embassy, a police officer drives a van through low-income protesters. In the U.S., I watch a self-avowed sexual predator rise in potential power. I watch my white relatives share hopeful posts that he will rule the country. I watch the country grow oligarchic. I watch acts of racism, and shows of arms, as endemic to America as the hope of its egalitarian dream.

Do the private terrors of one family compare to the public, national nightmares of the Philippines and the United States? Perhaps I am being reductive. But lately I have been reduced to silence, as I was as a child: staying still, my eyes on the screen, waiting, tense, for the danger at my door. I am of both countries, and I feel sanctuary in neither.

Duterte-drug-killings_CNNPH.png In the Philippines, the president constantly emphasizes the importance of the war on drugs.

Of course, a country is never solely its governance. During my weeks in the United States earlier this year, old school and work friends tidied spare bedrooms and couches for me, took me for tacos, the American immigrant food I missed most, and lent me their rescue dogs for walks. I glimpsed the families my friends were building there. They had married across racial lines, and joked their babies would look like me. They had careers in writing, the arts, teaching, law, and design. They lent me their jackets to handle the cold weather that never visits the Philippines. They spoke of their own stress and fear at the upcoming election — whether there would be a peaceful transfer of power at all, whether forces of hatred would overtake the American landscape. But unlike me, my friends did not plan to leave. They asked if I ever planned to return to the United States. It is a question that remains unresolved for me. Should I one day make my life in a country that better benefited from the colonial plunder the Philippines still suffers from?

Now, with my itinerant life in Singapore, I still don’t know. My own mother, living abroad near Vancouver, has asked me more than once not to return to the Philippines while the country’s new leader encourages more murders.

Unlike me, my friends did not plan to leave. They asked if I ever planned to return to the United States. It is a question that remains unresolved for me. Should I one day make my life in a country that better benefited from the colonial plunder the Philippines still suffers from?

 

But I still keep a shared apartment in Quezon City. I have returned, and I plan to return again. In September, I visited the neighbors who share meals with me, the reporter friends following the stories of the murdered in Metro Manila’s poorest neighborhoods, the musicians and writers and filmmakers and entrepreneurs whose drive always leaves me ashamed of my own paralysis. My friends in the Philippines live and work with great energy, as they always do, but they have new fears. They are afraid of the sound of motorcycles, murderers’ most frequently chosen conveyances. They are afraid of police officers’ shows of new power, of officers’ bribes and fatal tempers. Two friends have already witnessed murders; one, while commuting, the other near a small café that shows films. They witnessed the routine calm that resumes in the minutes after the gunshots — signs of a society adapting to a vicious normalcy.

I would like to dream that the experience of nation and the experience of family are disconnected. And yet a leader’s command to be afraid, to distrust, to arm oneself, to dispatch villains, to revolutionize, to make a country great — all are often invocations to protect the family: the relational unit that should be most precious to us. But in the absence of a close nuclear family, I have made friendships with colleagues, neighbors, and mentors — all blood strangers turned invented kin. I do not have a single barkada; after seeing the collapse of my immediate family to violence and acrimony, I think I am too afraid of a similar collapse recurring in a small group. I choose disparate, singular connections instead, as if knitting myself a net of imagined safety. I have a scattered sense of family in the United States and in the Philippines. I want them all protected.

US-Embassy-rally-1-CNNPH.jpg Police and militants clash in a rally near the U.S. embassy.  

In the dangerous divisions of each nation, as we become increasingly estranged, what is the role of love? Is it naïve to recall our power of connection and affection? Or are we moving beyond it?

When I left the Philippines after my visit in September, a Bureau of Immigration officer took my Philippine passport into her hands. She was a young woman, and she looked at my photograph — paler and thinner than my current face — and paged past the stamps of the past decade’s entries and exits. The officer hesitated. I braced myself for her inquiry, for the trouble she might cause for my departure, for the breach or bribe I might be facing. How had the new normal empowered her, I wondered?

“Pant-ow-zoh,” she said, a Filipinized pronunciation of my last name I had heard many times before. “Laurel Anne Flores. Many names.”

“American father,” I said, “Filipina mother.” I hoped the short sharing of my parentage would ease any turbulence.

The young officer looked at me and smiled. “I remember you,” she said. “I was the one who stamped your passport when you arrived. Last week.”

In the dangerous divisions of each nation, as we become increasingly estranged, what is the role of love? Is it naïve to recall our power of connection and affection? Or are we moving beyond it?

 

She stamped my passport and slipped it back to me under the bulletproof window that divided us. I looked at the officer closely. I did not remember her, though she had recognized a small connection between us, and wanted to note it before I left. I smiled, finally, and told her more than once, “Ingat —” to take care.

One Filipina friend, now raising her newborn in Manila, told me months ago that yes, the stories of violence and terror and crime in the Philippines are true. “But it’s not all that’s true,” she finished. And the phrase repeats for me now.

I fear for the futures of the countries that made me. And my frequent, stunned silence is perhaps my instinctive attempt at self-protection. But of the many tasks facing those of us who love our complicated countries, as we love our complicated families, perhaps this is another: to remember, and to protect, what else of them is true.